Interview: Mobility

21 Oct 2020

Prof Jillian Anable (Leeds), interviewed by Dr Graeme Hawker (Strathclyde)

Can you give us an overview of your theme?

In this Theme, we are trying to take into account that travel and transport is much more than the movement of people and goods from A to B. This is the first time we have had a dedicated theme on mobility in UKERC, so it is real progress.

There are a number of different sub-projects nested in scale, so we will be looking at understanding global supply chains, through to the interaction between transport and electrification – thinking about how the uptake of electric vehicles will have different geographical uptake patterns and therefore electricity supply capacity impacts. We will look at the co-benefits of EVs with regards to air quality, and how to navigate so-called future transport ‘revolutions’, including the development of autonomous mobility systems, mobility as a service, and car-sharing.

As a system modeller we try and model how we can meet particular levels of demand for energy services, how is it possible to predict mobility needs in 10-20 years?

If I could answer in one word I would say ‘don’t’! I think we should reduce the use of the word prediction in our work. If we were on more safe ground – for instance predicting the impact of a prevalent virus on students travelling from many different locations, congregating in halls of residence, maybe we would be in the predicting game – but we are talking about system-wide, longer-term impacts.

I do not think that mobility is any more difficult than other areas of energy demand. Mobility is not an end in itself and this idea that travel is a ‘derived demand’, is a stock phrase in transport planning, policy, and research, and precedes any more recent emphasis in energy studies on the greater need to understand ‘what energy is for’. But nevertheless, what gets included in predictive models of travel demand still harps back to the engineering and economics origins of the discipline of transport studies – key drivers are narrowed down to GDP, population growth and the cost of fuel. But without fail, forecasts have over-estimated passenger travel demand time and time again, yet they nevertheless get used to justify a ‘predict and provide’ policy approach to road building and airport capacity. For example, no forecasts predicted the 10% drop off in per capita passenger demand that started before the last recession and lasted until recently, which is a factor of saturation of demand in some age groups and changes to the structure of the labour and housing markets which has changed and constrained demand. The only increasing component has been in the over 60’s who have been the only ones with both time and money resources to expand travel. But will that be the same for the next generation of pensioners?

If transport is a derived demand, and composed of many complex layers, it would seem that there are different levels where policy makers can potentially intervene. How do you see your research contributing to the evidence base and interacting with local and system planners?

The models and data that we typically use to understand travel are not the same things that can help us understand the future of travel demand. We need to get away from the idea of predicting, and instead, we should use much more scenarios and visioning. We need to try to understand what sort of places we would like to live in, and the mobility patterns that would be consistent with this. In recent analyses of changing travel patterns throughout the Covid19 lockdown and since, we see that you need to understand aspects such as local labour markets, the housing market, distributional impacts, historical cycling tendencies, and local cultural patterns around socialising, leisure, and even the propensity to adhere to rules.

If you were to replace Grant Shapps (Secretary of State for transport) for one day and implement one policy of your choice what would it be?

I wouldn’t recommend implementing something, but stopping something – the road-building programme – in his words, we have “the largest road building programme ever”, which was announced at the same time as the DfT’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan earlier this year. I have been involved in an evaluation of this and the cumulative carbon emissions from both the embedded emissions in the infrastructure as well as the induced travel demand would wipe out almost any savings that would come from an accelerated uptake of EVs up to 2032.